Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

The politics of teaching

By Athambile Masola

There is a largely negative perception about teachers as being quasi-professionals, overworked, underpaid, intellectually complacent and, if they are members of the largest teacher union, often jeopardising the education of their learners by going on strikes. The image of teachers is also largely dependent on the school culture a teacher is working within, as well as the personal expectations teachers have of themselves as individuals. This highlights the politics of teaching — the lived experience of being a teacher.

The Norms and Standards for Educators 2000 document writes about teachers being “mediators of learning, interpreters and designers of learning programmes and materials, leaders, administrators and managers, scholars, researchers and lifelong learners, community members, citizens and pastors, assessors and learning area/phase specialists”. These norms and standards highlight the high expectations of teachers.

But most teachers fall short.

South Africa’s education system has been ranked fourth worst in the world. The complexities that plague our system have been discussed and debated endlessly. Among these are the failure of the ruling party in addressing the two streams of education, the effects of poverty on education, which further exacerbates the cleavage between the rich and the poor, the quality of teacher training and the urgent need for citizens to become more involved in finding solutions to the challenges facing many schools across the country. The role of teachers is often flagged, but a focus on the realities teachers face in classrooms is clouded by a discourse focusing on the bigger picture of policy and administrative failures.

Because of the two streams of education, we can argue that there are two sets of teachers in this country, those who are in privileged middle-class schools, contexts where they can meet the norms and standards listed above, and teachers in poorer schools who are falling short. However, this would be disingenuous and unfair towards those teachers who are resilient and have made a commitment to their learners in spite of the poor contexts within which they work. Much ink has been spilt on the exodus of teachers from South Africa, where people are seeking greener pastures in other countries.

Given this context, it is no surprise that many young people do not consider teaching as a worthy profession. As a first-year teacher I have been interrogated endlessly about my intentions for choose teaching in light of the negative perceptions that are held about the profession. I am perceived as a quasi-professional in a climate that discourages young people from considering teaching as a tool for transforming the education crises. Without new teachers in the system, how can education be transformed? The challenges in education not only need better administration and policies, but transformation cannot happen without teachers who are committed to changing their practices as well as holding fast to the basics that allow for teaching and learning to continue in schools.

The historical backlash against teaching adds to the negative perception as race, gender and age play a role in this complexity. For many teachers (especially teachers who are female and black), teaching was the default profession that people stumbled into because of sexist and racist apartheid legislation. People who became teachers in the 1970s and 1980s are still in our classrooms today with the hope of retiring soon. As a result, younger people do not consider teaching as an option because of the image of older, redundant and embittered teachers who are counting the days until retirement. Those who are still passionate about the profession are at the mercy of confused curriculum reforms, which have not been properly explained to them.

The textbook debacle in Limpopo raised the question about the role of teachers: what did teachers in Limpopo do during the textbook debacle? There are numerous examples of teachers being silent and simply accepting the status quo in their schools. I speak as someone who has never personally experienced education in the rural areas, therefore I do not know the extent of the constraints that teachers in this context face. However, this is an opportunity to ask ourselves how teachers in rural areas and townships can be agents of positive change, teacher-leaders, rather than subjects complicit in the chaos in many schools.

While looking for a teaching post last year I considered teaching in the Eastern Cape. There was no vacancy list available on the Eastern Cape’s department of education website. The Western Cape education department had numerous vacancy lists throughout last year and I was able to apply for a post in Cape Town in spite of my recognition that teachers are needed in the Eastern Cape. This experience demonstrates how maladministration can prevent young graduates from joining the profession if information about teaching posts is not made readily available in provinces that are in dire need of teachers.

Without a transformed teaching force, our current education system is not sustainable. Education is political and teaching is equally political if classrooms are spaces that are supposed to transform young people into reading, writing, counting, thinking, empathetic citizens of this country.

Athambile Masola is a teacher at a high school in Cape Town.

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    • Mr. Direct

      I think it takes a special kind of person to become a good teacher. I nearly left out the word “good” incorrectly, because anybody can be a bad teacher.

      I agree there are pre- and mis-conceptions about teachers in general. Parents need to support teachers, and the education department even more.

      Here are a few ideas:

      Increase subsidies to poorer schools.

      In order to make the teaching profession more viable as a career, reduce the amount of holiday time, and increase the salaries to compensate. The extra time can be used for summer camps, administration, teacher education, etc. Better salaries could improve candidates.

      Give teachers a little more power than they have now, offering viable punishment for unruly children, and also holding parents responsible for their children’s actions. I know this will be tricky, but something needs to be done to reinforce the child’s commitment to the learning process.

      Offering children additional support in the form of extra/summer classes, especially on their weaker subjects (this ties together with the extra woking time)..

      Assess teachers properly, and reward those who do outstanding work. The teacher needs achievable measurements. Extra rewards given from pupil/parent testimony, as well as children’s results.

      According to reports, huge money is being spent in education, but the statistics do not support this.

      Something needs to change to break the cycle of poverty, and narrow the income gap.

    • Tommy Madikoto

      Hi Athambile

      As an ex teacher, I am inspired by young and dedicated people who can contribute to the improvement of teaching and the image of this noble profession.

      Unfortunately, I must add that the obstacles are huge while we have this exceptional ability to obfuscate the nub of the problem because of political expediency. Let me explain. Any organisation requires resources, namely physical and human. Money is merely a means of acquiring these resources. The human resource is most critical because it is dynamic. Without this resource nothing moves.

      In the South African teaching context we neglect the importance of how our human resource should be acting in a way that moves mountains and elevates our educational standards way beyond what we currently produce. My analysis is that we are under performing by close to 65% when it comes to our educational deliverables. As I said, there are clear political considerations which makes this a mammoth task requiring a paradigm shift at societal level.

      Do not despair however because, despite the stubborn politics you will be greatly rewarded if you remain true to your calling as a teacher. This might not be in the form of undeserving massive riches you see paraded all around us.

      My advice is seek a diversity of schools from which to learn as you undertake this journey in teaching because unlike the popular narrative, previously advantaged schools did not get where they are merely because they were advantaged.

    • Rich Brauer

      Thank you, Athambile Masola, for teaching. And doing it passionately.

      You are quite literally building the nation. Always know that the children you’re teaching are positively influenced by your example. Not all of them. Not all at once. But you are making a positive difference in their lives, and the life of South Africa, one child at a time.

      During the Lonmin stand-off, I recall seeing that the miners’ demand for R12,500 per month was higher than the salary of a high school teacher. I believe in a living wage for every worker. But, as a society, we *must* make teaching an economically attractive option for our best people.

      Please keep at it, despite the hardships. We desperately need people like you.

    • Jens Bierbrauer

      Athambile, I agree that teaching is, as you say, political. However, a partisan political agenda imposed by the teacher or the school or by the government is nothing other than the seed of tyranny. The politics of scolarship should be neutral in the sense that they should encourage curiosity and the courage not to conform should the hegemony be morally repugnant.

      Is the current hegemony morally repugnant? I would like to hear your opnion.

      I would also like to hear some more about “transformation”. This is clearly a loaded term and I would like it clarified. Transformation from what to what? Does race matter in this agenda and if so, why? I know many old teachers who predate the 2000 Norms and Standards document who meet and exceed the definition of teachers provided. Why are they “untransformed”? Why were they made to retire?

      Lifelong learning isn’t only UNISA. It’s also about questioning the basic premises of your first degree,

    • Inquisitive citizen

      Hi Athambile

      You made reference to “the urgent need for citizens to become more involved in finding solutions to the challenges facing many schools across the country”. What do you think is the best way that ordinary citizens can help improve education? Some articles on this would be greatly appreciated.

      My question above is quite broad, so I’d like to give some context, but please don’t limit any responses to just my context. As a white person who benefited from apartheid, I think some form of volunteering is probably the best way of contributing towards the undoing of apartheid’s legacy, and also hopefully progressing reconciliation. As someone with a University degree, education is something I consider valuable, and possibly an area where I can contribute. If I ever move back to South Africa, or maybe even before then, this is what I’d consider doing. How practical that would be for someone pursuing a career and deadlines remains to be seen.

      However, what would you say I could do to contribute?

    • Shaman sans Frontieres

      All strength to you, Athambile Masola. Advantage comes from initiative, over and above anything else. Seize the initiative and you will make a significant difference. Disadvantage comes from failing to see and use resources – just like the Eastern Cape Education Department and its failure to advertise vacant posts on its website.

      Transformation is about attitude – the attitude that says I intend to make good use – the best use – of what’s available. That’s all, really. And this applies to management, teachers, parents, and pupils. it’s about the will to teach and learn.

      People got excellent school education a century ago, in small rural or mission schools, without access to the net, without fancy sportsfields, and so forth. Google Sol Plaatje and Jan Smuts, as two outstanding examples.

    • Blogroid

      You have it seems, produced an absurdity.

      You have [intentionally or not] subliminally conflated the entire absurdity into your opening four paragraphs… I woud even go so far as to suggest it reveals an absurdity [nationally] as bizarre as that described here, which is hysterical in its absurdity .

      In summary, for those who are confused. We have a “war of words”. The most important word over which the “war” was fought in the Economist article, was the word ‘god’… the equivalent word in this piece is ‘teacher’.

      In paragraph 2 you open with the new word decreed by the State i.e.. “mediators”. You then revert to the reject term for the rest of your blog… disturbingly ignorant, or uncaring or [deliberately?/not] of the distinction. You mention, and i know of, no change of policy but the word ‘mediator is gone…. The word Teacher is not evident.

      For me the word [old word] teacher doesn’t conflate with a classroom full of media savvy ten year olds.. ntm, hormone loaded teens with a three second attention span. Hence, evolution of the definition… mediator of an information filled environment, planned by you in which learning takes place, which you manage.

      So: thought exercise: [all ] Substitute the word “mediator” … for “teacher”, would it be the same…

    • Blogroid

      The sentence at the end of para 4 should read : The word ‘Teacher’ is not evident in the Norms document to which you refer.

      I believe it [the document] refers to “educators”, a more neutral term, albeit not as neutral a term as “mediator” which was selected as being more neutral than the word “facilitator ” that [ i believe] preceded it. It is also more reflective of their absolute lack of power in the relationship… which is that between free citizens.

      The word Teacher belongs to the old economy too when only a little was known and it could be ‘taught’ by rote on a blackboard.

      In the new economy the simplest Google search reveals more information than can be “taught” in a lifetime, never mind a lesson.

      It is the Learners job to LEARN and the classroom manager’s job is to MEDIATE on a learning structured environment. The desired goal is reasonable self-management.

      If we cannot understand this core idea of what we have created [new system] then how can it be ‘fixed’?… Is it even broken? Or is it that are there simply too many participants who have no coherent understanding of their roles … e.g. Children have chosen to be or NON-Learners… and /or [really] should be going to an FET school or other learning environment.

      This Teacher to whom you refer is already obsolete. I know of 5 year old’s who have IPads as required equipment and they go to class to work online…inter/intra Net: the manager creates the ‘gestalt’, and they…

    • suntosh

      Great piece to provoke debate, Athambile.

      “this is an opportunity to ask ourselves how teachers in rural areas and townships can be agents of positive change” –> I think this should be the springboard for further conversations that result in practical solutions. We need to think creatively to come up with ideas.

      3 issues:
      – individual resilence vs. social change
      – policy changes vs. practical solutions
      – accountabilty: who “owns” the problem? And if it’s “all of us” how do we measure who must do what?

    • RubinBanana

      It sounds as if you are taking the teaching profession seriously. I wish you all the strength needed for this noble profession.
      I, a retired businessman with training in maths and science, recently got involved in helping highschool kids with math. (I have commented briefly on this before).
      What I found was that the kids are unable to apply the simples maths. So I don’t think the problem lies with advanced stuff; it is with elementary things they should have been taught within the first few years of school. Like the fact that there are 100 cents in a Rand, to give one example. The fact that half of one half is a quarter, etc.
      Also it seems to me the math syllabus is trying to cover as much as possible, with almost no depth of understanding.
      I would love to talk to you. Send me an email to [email protected]. Perhaps we can talk next time I get to Cape Town.
      Meanwhile, best of luck!

    • Blogroid

      Since this debate this has either stalled or my web receiving system has broken down under the strain of seasonal usage i would like to interrogate this idea of Two streams of education to which you refer. There is a more fundamental cleavage, academic versus practical. that for reasons associated with our desire to demonstrate equality of access, dramatically more people than should be are progressing into the [so-called] Academic FET phase in the traditional matric oriented route.

      This route is increasingly academic.

      The old distinction between higher, standard and lower grades of matric were done away with so that all child citizens could have access to the top opportunity and progress would be subject to their own work ethic, not to mention all the standard cliches… [The old Lower Grade matric could be achieved with scores as low as 20%… and that was also [allegedly] a pretty rigged system: [we didn’t have as much freedom to speak out then as we do now.

      Now the results simply indicate that the ratios of academic capacity are roughly constant, and the core damage may be to our level of expectation: and to the fact that as ‘academic oriented ‘ class managers we also have to structure learning across six hierarchical levels of cognition. This is new.

      In the past we Taught knowledge. Hugely informative educators “taught” facts that were later tested. Then knowledge was [almost] all. Now, when combined with a few other skills it might count 60%. tbc

    • Blogroid

      Now the logic of this is irrefutable. We are, as Prez: JZ pointed out earlier this year gearing to a ‘knowledge’ economy And success in a “knowledge’ economy is functional on rapid shifts in strategies and policies and applications.

      Higher order thinkings skills are a core requirement for access to [allegedly] better ‘paid’ occupations.

      Now curiously, one didn’t see 35000 [allegedly competent] applications for the jobs of the miners recently killed at Marikana, nor for jobs as electricians or plumbers routinely advertised in the press. [of course the 35000 -7 ‘qualified’ applicants for 90 metro cop jobs may have been seeking the alleged, ‘get rich quick’ option.]


      The long maligned FET [other]

      Logic suggests that knowledge would be as relevant in technical learning where a body of knowledge is developed that engages successfully. So we need to applaud the growing emphasis on this category of learning and figure ways of targeting kids at practical skills developments in order that they can target themselves on creating work rather than dying, literally, for a “job” [r.i.p.].

      So i would submit in this debate that their are more than two streams: Rather, there are at least four… [and once we introduce paradigms of class there are an infinity… but for the time being we will ignore those.]

      We sacrifice generations to oversupplied “academic” jobs, and downgrade “technical”… ??

      A knowledge economy still needs…